What Is The 5 Whys Method And Why It Matters To Unlock Creativity In Business

The 5 Whys method is an interrogative problem-solving technique that seeks to understand cause-and-effect relationships. At its core, the technique is used to identify the root cause of a problem by asking the question of why five times. This might unlock new ways to think about a problem and therefore devise a creative solution to solve it.

Understanding the 5 Whys Method

The 5 Whys method was instituted by Toyota employee Taiichi Ohno in the 1950s. 

Ohno developed the technique as the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach to problem-solving.

He argued that “by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”

In modern business, the method has expanded well beyond the automotive industry.

It is especially popular in the lean development of software, itself based on Toyota’s minimum waste and maximum value ethos in production line manufacturing.

Regardless of the industry however, the 5 Whys Method is effective at addressing recurring problems.

By their very nature, these problems recur because their root cause has not been identified.

A business with such a problem is only treating the symptoms of that problem and does not have a strategy to completely address it.

Implementing the 5 Whys Method in practice

There are several steps to undertaking the 5 Whys Method, outlined below.

1. Assemble a team

Ideally, the 5 Whys method should not be undertaken by a sole individual.

A team should instead consist of members that are experienced in dealing with the problem concerned.

Each team member should also be encouraged to share their unique insights and point of view.

2. Identify the problem

The problem must be identified and agreed upon, because it very much dictates the direction of the five questions that follow.

Wherever possible, the team must identify problems with process, and not personnel.

The scope of the problem must also adequately be described.

A problem with too broad a scope will be resource-intensive to address and may inadvertently conflict with company values or strategy.

Too narrow a scope may result in insignificant improvements that do little to prevent problem recurrence.

3. Ask why

Next, a mediator should begin the process of asking why.

Each time the question is asked, the answers should be based on facts or hard data.

They should not be based on often emotional answers that are given by team members.

The team should move through each level of the method so long as there is potential for the problem to occur. 

Here, it’s important to note that some root causes may be identified in less than 5 steps. Others may require more than five.

4. Identify the solutions

Once the root cause has been determined, a list of solutions must be created to address it.

Although not expressly a part of the 5 Whys method, many businesses choose to use the 5 How strategy in solution development.

This involves taking each root cause and asking “How?” a further five times until the root solution is arrived at.

Irrespective of how solutions are formulated, the business must test them in a workplace scenario.

If they are found to be ineffective, then the 5 Whys method should be repeated from the start.

Limitations of the 5 Whys Analysis

The 5 Whys analysis is a great tool to start inquiring about the core issues of a business.

It’s extremely effective as it helps you get closer to the root cause of a problem.

However, for that to work, this analysis must turn into a real, in-depth investigation of a problem.

Indeed, often this might turn into a sterile tool, as those using it only shallowly look at the problem at hand, thus confusing a symptom for the root cause.

For instance, take the case of a manager analyzing customer complaints, making many theoretical hypotheses with the 5 Whys analysis, but by never talking with the final customers.

While the analysis might be potentially a great tool to inquire into customers’ issues, in reality, that might turn into a misleading tool if not used properly.

5 Whys Analysis Example

Take the case of a company receiving many customers’ complaints, and it wants to go to the root cause of it.

The company must understand whether the product has manufacturing defects or isn’t delivered as it should.

Take the case of a company selling electric brooms, and lately received various complaints about these products not working as they should.

So it starts to drill down with various questions:

  1. Why are customers complaining about the product? The product arrived on time, but it wasn’t working as expected.
  2. Why is the product not working as expected? As the customer opened the product and tried to make it work, it wasn’t cleaning as promised.
  3. Why is the product not delivering on the expectations? After running various checks, it turned out that a key filter was missing.
  4. Why is that filter missing? One of the manufacturing facilities had issues related to supplying some critical raw materials, among which filters seemed to be missing.
  5. Why are filters missing? From a further investigation, it turns out that the company was using an inventory of old filters, using old technology, as the supply of new filters was scarce.

From the analysis above, the company realizes that it has a problem with a manufacturer of filters that is not able to keep up with demand.

Thus, the company closes an exclusive agreement with the supplier, which will primarily provide these new filters to the company, thus solving the manufacturing issue.

5 Whys and Fishbone

The Fishbone Diagram is a diagram-based technique used in brainstorming to identify potential causes for a problem, thus it is a visual representation of cause and effect. The problem or effect serves as the head of the fish. Possible causes of the problem are listed on the individual “bones” of the fish. This encourages problem-solving teams to consider a wide range of alternatives.

The fishbone diagram is a great companion tool to the 5 Whys Analysis.

5 Whys and Root Cause Analysis

In essence, a root cause analysis involves the identification of problem root causes to devise the most effective solutions. Note that the root cause is an underlying factor that sets the problem in motion or causes a particular situation such as non-conformance.

The 5 Whys method can also be integrated with a root cause analysis tool to make it more effective.

Key takeaways

  • The 5 Whys method is the iterative discussion of a problem that follows one train of thought to a logical conclusion. 
  • The 5 Whys method is used to address recurring problems by identifying and then addressing the root cause to prevent future recurrence.
  • The 5 Whys method is a four-step process where individuals with experience in the problem at hand come together to brainstorm potential solutions. The method is sometimes supplemented with the “5 How” root solution technique.

Connected Business Frameworks

Ansoff Matrix

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Five Product Levels

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Growth-Share Matrix

In the 1970s, Bruce D. Henderson, founder of the Boston Consulting Group, came up with The Product Portfolio (aka BCG Matrix, or Growth-share Matrix), which would look at a successful business product portfolio based on potential growth and market shares. It divided products into four main categories: cash cows, pets (dogs), question marks, and stars.

Ansoff Matrix

You can use the Ansoff Matrix as a strategic framework to understand what growth strategy is more suited based on the market context. Developed by mathematician and business manager Igor Ansoff, it assumes a growth strategy can be derived by whether the market is new or existing, and the product is new or existing.

Blitzscaling Canvas

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Business Analysis Framework

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Gap Analysis

A gap analysis helps an organization assess its alignment with strategic objectives to determine whether the current execution is in line with the company’s mission and long-term vision. Gap analyses then help reach a target performance by assisting organizations to use their resources better. A good gap analysis is a powerful tool to improve execution.

Business Model Canvas

The business model canvas is a framework proposed by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur in Busines Model Generation enabling the design of business models through nine building blocks comprising: key partners, key activities, value propositions, customer relationships, customer segments, critical resources, channels, cost structure, and revenue streams.

Lean Startup Canvas

The lean startup canvas is an adaptation by Ash Maurya of the business model canvas by Alexander Osterwalder, which adds a layer that focuses on problems, solutions, key metrics, unfair advantage based, and a unique value proposition. Thus, starting from mastering the problem rather than the solution.

Digital Marketing Circle

digital channel is a marketing channel, part of a distribution strategy, helping an organization to reach its potential customers via electronic means. There are several digital marketing channels, usually divided into organic and paid channels. Some organic channels are SEO, SMO, email marketing. And some paid channels comprise SEM, SMM, and display advertising.

Blue Ocean Strategy

A blue ocean is a strategy where the boundaries of existing markets are redefined, and new uncontested markets are created. At its core, there is value innovation, for which uncontested markets are created, where competition is made irrelevant. And the cost-value trade-off is broken. Thus, companies following a blue ocean strategy offer much more value at a lower cost for the end customers.

Balanced Scorecard

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ReadBalanced Scorecard

PEST Analysis

The PESTEL analysis is a framework that can help marketers assess whether macro-economic factors are affecting an organization. This is a critical step that helps organizations identify potential threats and weaknesses that can be used in other frameworks such as SWOT or to gain a broader and better understanding of the overall marketing environment.

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Scenario Planning

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SWOT Analysis

SWOT Analysis is a framework used for evaluating the business’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It can aid in identifying the problematic areas of your business so that you can maximize your opportunities. It will also alert you to the challenges your organization might face in the future.

ReadSWOT Analysis In A Nutshell

Growth Matrix

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ReadGrowth Matrix In A Nutshell

Comparable Analysis Framework

A comparable company analysis is a process that enables the identification of similar organizations to be used as a comparison to understand the business and financial performance of the target company. To find comparables you can look at two key profiles: the business and financial profile. From the comparable company analysis it is possible to understand the competitive landscape of the target organization.

ReadComparable Analysis Framework In A Nutshell

Other related business frameworks:

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